Improve Your Balance - Teach Neck Reining (Part 1 of 2)
July 10, 2014
Written by: Keith Hosman
Written by: Keith Hosman
Something the more experienced rider does that the newer rider has yet to master, is the ability to isolate his or her top half from his or her bottom half. This is a major key to balance - and what we'll tackle here in this material. We'll simultaneously improve our horse's ability to neck rein (or initially teach it to). We'll practice one thing, he'll practice another.
We'll improve our balance here in this material. We'll simultaneously improve our horse's ability to neck rein (or initially teach it to). We'll practice one thing, he'll practice another.
The following can be taught to any horse at any level, to any rider at any level. There are no pre-requisites.
There's riding and there's training. Training is you conveying idea A or B to your horse and your horse doing A or B. Riding is all you, your seat, your timing, your posture. Here, we'll improve how you do both: You'll get better balance and a horse that turns when cued by small changes in your body language as opposed to tons of pressure or painful hardware.
When you see a rider and judge that person to be a beginner versus accomplished... what things do you notice? You notice how they hold the reins (in a strangle-hold if a novice), you notice their posture (leaning, stiff), you notice their seat (they're bouncing, out of time with the horse). The common denominator? Balance - or the lack thereof. Advanced riders don't look to the reins for balance, they sit in the center of the horse's motion, their seat seems to actually grow from the horse's back. They look like that because they're balanced, in harmony with their horses. With practice, this will be you.
When you see a horse that you consider well-trained, what are the characteristics? Most likely he moves based on imperceptible cues from the rider. He's attentive and keeps himself upright (as opposed to leaning over) and looks fluid throughout, nothing looks forced or abrupt. This is a horse whose brain has been trained, not a horse reacting to pain and mechanics. Put in the time; this will be your horse.
In this exercise, there are two things to stay focused on, to keep telling yourself over and over: 1) Ninety-eight percent of the time you should be traveling with the reins in one hand, that hand just a few inches above and centered over the horse's neck, a pronounced droop in your reins. Sure, you'll make corrections or turn the horse and doing either will change up that equation - but make your changes and get back to the ideal quickly and without hesitation. 2) It is of equal import that you concentrate on keeping balanced (keep yourself balanced) over that saddle in such a way that, given a split second's notice, you can stay firmly in your seat regardless of which way your horse might move. (More on this later.) Improvement here depends on repetition, so keep numbers 1 and 2 running through your brain; keep asking yourself if you'd pass a pop quiz on either. If he jumped suddenly left would you keep your balance - or struggle to stay on? If he suddenly disappeared - poof! - would you land on your feet? If I looked out at you from the barn window, would I most likely see those reins drooped and held just over the center of the horse's neck - or taut?
From a training standpoint, our objective is to train the horse to feel your weight and body position and to flow off in the direction you'd like to travel. Nearly any horse will turn when wearing a leverage or shanked bit - they have little choice due to the nature of the device. But this isn't true "neck reining" and nothing you should brag about. He hasn't been trained to turn based on you moving those reins left or right - he's surviving. To prove it, simply swap out the leverage bit for a snaffle bit. You'll then see the work you have in front of you as you think left and your horse turns right. Taking the time to train your horse is important for two reasons: 1) You'll look better because nothing forced will ever look graceful - and 2) Eventually, he'll begin overlooking the pain caused by the shank bit and you'll need to use a bigger shank bit to get the same results.
Tip: Teach almost anything to your horse with the "Clock Work Exercise." That's a chapter in the basic training book "What I'd Teach Your Horse" - and you can hear the whole section right now for FREE on audio when you click here.
When your horse truly "neck reins," you move your reins left or right and your horse reads this (along with small changes you make unconsciously in your body language such as more weight on the left stirrup or more pressure to the right of the saddle) and understands it as a cue to make a turn. He learned this cue because each time he ignored it in the past, the rider backed up his request with motivation of some sort. ("Turn your hips if you're not going to turn your shoulders," "back up if you don't want to stop," etc.) If your mother asks you to come to her, she's cueing you to get up and walk over. If she takes you by the ear and walks you across the room, she's saying "You missed my cue." You learn to come when asked. Your horse learns to turn when asked. This means, of course, that your work is to teach a consistent cue.
... And the only way he'll learn that cue is by running through a learning process that means him making lots of mistakes. You must allow these mistakes to happen; you must resist the temptation to guide (or help) your horse. When you ask him to turn, you use as light a pressure as you think perceptible - and you wait. If he misses this cue, you make your correction after he misses your cue, (corrections below). If, instead, you "just know" he's going to blow it - and actively steer him, he'll not learn any quicker than your son or daughter would if you took the math test for them. See his every boo-boo as a good thing, as another chance for him to learn. He's narrowing down possibilities and being held accountable.
Regarding you as a rider... We'll simultaneously work to improve your riding skills. Begin by picturing the blow-up toy that kids have, the one with the clown face and sand in the bottom that keeps popping back upright when it's punched. They punch the painted-on face and the "clown" tips over - but then rights itself immediately. The great teacher and author Sally Swift (and you really should buy her books) challenges her students to see if they can't keep their center of gravity, their balance, low and in such a way that they can right their upper bodies regardless of where or how the horse moves - just as the toy. Think of this as you ride through this exercise and see if you can't keep yourself always prepared: If the horse jumped sideways to the left right now, would I be able to "right myself"? If not, adjust your seat, in such a way that you are ready for anything, left, right, forward, backward. Constantly test yourself and work at this because it's far more natural for us to drift off in our thoughts and allow ourselves to be packed or carried around as opposed to staying proactively perched up there. Stay focused here; you're learning to improve your seat/balance through repetition while your horse learns to travel based on your body language. In time, you'll build muscle memory and stay balanced, never giving it a thought.
Remember, that you should be gripping not with your "whole leg" (hip to ankle) and not with the sides of your legs (not there where the seam runs). Instead, you hold on with that area of your legs halfway between the seam and the front of your leg (there where you'd drop cookie crumbs whilst snacking) - and only from above the knee up. Beyond the exercise outlined here, go on to practice this (staying perpetually balanced, allowing gravity to keep you in the seat, gripping not with your whole legs but from just above the knee up) until it becomes second-nature. Here's a good exercise to build the necessary muscle: Trot around with your seat out of the saddle, your thighs holding you up (your rear an inch or so above the saddle seat) for increased periods of time to build up these muscles. Pinch a dollar bill between your leg and the saddle and give it to the kid in the next paddock if you allow it to fall. And post more often - that's a terrific way to build both muscle and balance. (Riders who post well have great balance and there's a reason for that.)